Click to hear an audio recording of this post
Search engine optimization (SEO) is a constantly evolving marketing discipline that, over the past decade, has witnessed several major changes, from mobile prioritization to knowledge graphs and more.
The frequency of Google’s algorithm updates has also been increasing and with each update, the ranking algorithm is becoming increasingly smarter in determining the quality of content and websites.
Now, established SEO tactics such as guest blogging, link building, and on-page optimization aren’t going anywhere — and you need to continue working on these as you’ve been doing since you first started optimizing your website.
That being said, there are certain trends that occupy center stage and demand your attention as we move into the new year. So, without further ado, here are the top seven SEO trends of 2021 along with actionable tips to keep up with them.
1. Prioritize User Experience
In the eyes of Google, user experience (UX) continues to take center stage and you’ll notice that most of the top ranking websites on Google render a compelling user experience, with the page experience update in 2021 that might switch to all top ranking results.
That’s because Google favors those sites that have great UX and keep visitors engaged. In fact, Google recently announced on the Webmaster Central Blog how optimizing for quality of user experience is key to the long-term success of any site on search.
In particular, they introduced a new program “Core Web Vitals” to provide unified guidance for quality signals that Google believes are essential to delivering a great UX on the web:
“Core Web Vitals are a set of real-world, user-centered metrics that quantify key aspects of the user experience. They measure dimensions of web usability such as load time, interactivity, and the stability of content as it loads (so you don’t accidentally tap that button when it shifts under your finger – how annoying!).”
Emphasis on user-centered metrics. With these updates to its search algorithm, Google is clearly underlining its increasing focus on “delightful” web experiences for people — on fast, intuitive, and accessible experiences across all devices and platforms.
Google is combining the signals derived from Core Web Vitals with existing search signals for page experience, such as mobile-friendliness (discussed later), safe-browsing, HTTPS-security, and intrusive interstitial guidelines, to build a holistic picture of page experience.
There’s now a dedicated Core Web Vitals report that you can pull through Google Search Console to understand where your web pages stand from a UX perspective — against all of Google’s UX ranking signals — as well as suggestions on how to improve your UX.
Google plans to incorporate more page experience signals on a yearly basis to both further align with evolving user expectations and increase the aspects of UX that can be measured.
With this in mind, here are some questions you need to answer about your site:
- Are there any pages on your site that load slowly?
- Do you have pop-ups that, however important to lead generation, are actually annoying and intrusive for visitors?
- Are there pages that don’t work well on mobile devices?
- Is your website easy to navigate?
Make sure your site loads lightning fast on all devices, get rid of all intrusive pop-ups and interstitials that are super annoying for users, and build a logical site structure with relevant and up-to-date content (more on content quality later).
Long story short, SEO today goes hand-in-hand with providing a great user experience (UX) on your website and the way things are shaping, you can almost start calling SEO as UXO in the coming years.
2. Understand Semantic Search
There was a time when SEO professionals used to focus on keywords as if that’s the only thing that matters. A decade back, they weren’t entirely wrong but today, keywords are just a piece of the puzzle.
“Semantic search” is how search engines like Google sift through oceans of web pages and data in their index and use AI to determine the context, intent, and meaning behind a search query. It is how they serve the most relevant results as possible.
Think about it — if Google expects a top-notch user experience from your website, then the same applies to them. They too want to be able to deliver the best search experience possible by allowing people to quickly find the most relevant results using natural language search terms.
As you can probably guess, optimizing for semantic search boils down to how and why your audience searches. It’s about understanding what answers, information, products, or experiences they’re looking for.
Here’s what you must do when it comes to semantic search:
- Create content that answers your target audience’s questions. Think frequently asked questions — in a Q&A format — but super in-depth. You might dedicate entire pieces of content to one specific question, answering the question at the top of the piece (“what is natural language processing,” for instance) before diving into the full details.
- Write for humans, not search engine bots. In other words, create content that is to the point, concise, and written in easy-to-understand sentences. No fluff for the sake of word count. Use subheadings and bullets that make it easy for people to skim and find the information they need.
- Use structured data if it makes sense. Using a product, question, article, ratings, or review schema helps search bots better understand your pages and translates to a more clickable search result for the users.
- Strive for contextual internal linking on your website. Internal linking is not just about linking various pages on your site to each other whenever you fancy. Do it strategically to create a well-structured map of related content around a central topic or search term (aka the topic cluster model).
Simply put, semantic search and intent optimization are only going to gain further importance in the coming years. Google isn’t just matching strings of words anymore. The algorithm is analyzing query context and trying to comprehend a user’s search intent, which means that the more relevant content you create — with primary, secondary, and semantic (conceptually related) keywords — the better you rank.
So, create content meant to answer questions that your target audience would pose. Optimize content for topic clusters rather than getting hung up on keywords. Use structured data when it makes sense. And above all, don’t write for bots but for people.
3. Ensure Mobile-Friendliness
Mobile already accounts for more than half of the website traffic around the world. In the second quarter of 2020, mobile devices (excluding tablets) generated 51.53% of global website traffic, according to Statista.
What’s more, due to Google’s mobile-first indexing, the mobile (not the desktop!) version of your business website is the benchmark for how Google indexes your website and determines your rankings. This makes sense as it’s estimated that nearly three-quarters of the world will use just their smartphones to access the internet by 2025.
This means your mobile user experience can effectively make or break your website’s rankings on Google. So, if you haven’t already, you should start focusing your efforts on optimizing your online presence for mobile devices.
Here are a five key steps you can take to ensure a mobile-friendly experience on your website:
Optimize Your Content Layout for the Thumb Zone
According to Steven Hoober’s research, 75% of users touch the screen only with one thumb, and 10% of users hold their phone in one hand and tap with a finger of the other hand.
This means you need to optimize your mobile site experience for the “thumb zone” — the area of a phone’s screen that can be easily accessed with the thumb when a person is holding their phone with one hand.
Put primary interactions front and center (easy-to-reach areas of the screen), and less crucial ones at the top and bottom screen edges.
Having most of your interactive content (especially the calls-to-action) in the thumb zone makes it easy to use your website and is vital to creating a better mobile experience.
Reduce the Amount of Typing Needed
Typing on a touch screen is still far from perfect, and it can be annoying for users to fill out long forms or input data that can be fetched from elsewhere.
Good mobile design reduces the amount of typing required, and only requires typing when absolutely necessary. So, you must minimize the number of form fields on the mobile version of your site.
Asking people to fill out a form with four or five fields is acceptable on desktop, but on a mobile device, even four fields are enough to ruin the experience, especially if visitors can’t see a purpose.
So, ensure every single field in your mobile forms serves a purpose, and eliminate any that don’t. Combine multiple form fields into a single field (first and last name, for example), or segment the form filling process into a couple of steps so as to reduce the perceived workload.
Also, enable autofill wherever possible so that users only have to enter the bare minimum of information. Provide the option to connect their existing accounts (such as a Facebook, Google, or Twitter account) instead of signing up from scratch.
Focus on Speed
Mobile page speed is an official ranking factor. Mobile users simply don’t have the patience to wait for your site to load and it doesn’t take long for them to click away if your site doesn’t finish loading.
You likely already know the importance of compressing images on your website. Bulky, full-sized images slow down your site, which hurts both the user experience and search rankings.
So, see to it that you use an image compression tool to optimize the file size of your images before you upload them on your website. Moreover, to ensure optimal speed on mobile, minify CSS and JS, avoid unnecessary redirects, leverage browser caching, and enable compression.
Get Rid of the Navigation Bar
A navbar is certainly needed on a desktop or laptop — it enables users to conveniently browse the pages on your site and readily find what they’re looking for.
But on mobile, real estate is premium, and as shown below, your navbar can take up a lot of space that could otherwise be used for important text and visual content.
Of course, the navbar still remains an essential navigational element even on mobile. For that, your best bet is to incorporate a hamburger menu, which turns your space-hungry navbar into an expandable menu.
Navigation on mobile sites needs to be more intuitive than it is on desktop versions, and visitors must be able to instantly identify how to get around without having to think. You can achieve that by using recognizable icons and design patterns, such as the hamburger menu.
Disable Popups on Mobile
If you wish for your mobile site to rank high in Google search (and render a first-rate user experience), you need to be aware of Google’s guidelines for better content accessibility on mobile devices.
In 2017, Google introduced a soft penalty for what they call “intrusive interstitials”. According to Google, showing a popup that covers the main content, either right after the user navigates to a page from the search results, or while they are looking through the page, or displaying a standalone interstitial that the user has to dismiss before accessing the main content — are examples of techniques that make content less accessible to a user.
Thus, popups are an absolute no-no on mobile — they are already vexing on full-sized desktop screens, and even more so on smaller mobile screens.
They seriously hurt the mobile user experience, as users are unable to easily find the content they were expecting upon clicking through. Go ahead and disable popups on the mobile version of your site straight away.
Besides these five steps, avoid common mobile SEO mistakes, such as:
- Unplayable video content due to Flash
- Small font size
- Touch elements too close to each other
- Different meta robots tags on desktop and mobile versions
Modern users and search bots are savvy enough to recognize bad mobile design and simply put, you can’t compete or rank high without a business website that renders a top-notch mobile experience.
4. Focus on Local SEO (Google My Business)
Local SEO is growing fast — 30% of all mobile searches are related to location. Mobile searches for “near me” (for example, “bookstore open near me”) have grown by over 250% from 2017–2019.
Google My Business optimization plays a pivotal role in local search experiences. Engagement and activity on a GMB listing are strong ranking signals for Google, so the more complete and optimized your local listing, the more likely your business will show up in local searches.
Realizing its importance, nearly early every local business is now on Google My Business. So, if your digital marketing mix comprises local search, in 2021, you’ll want to ensure your Google My Business listing is complete with all the details, and updated regularly to reflect the latest information.
Google continually rolls out new features for local businesses to use, such as posts, new products/services options, and direct-to-customer messaging. They want to make the local search experience seamless for users seeking quick information on:
- Open hours
- Phone numbers
- Reviews and ratings
- And more.
To stay on top of the local SEO game, here’s what you need to do:
- Answer FAQs about your business or its offerings.
- Add weekly photos and videos. These could be of your location, new products, etc.
- Share regular business posts to announce new products, deals, etc.
- Try and get as many positive reviews as possible.
Make sure to optimize every aspect of your listing. Google makes this very intuitive as when you log in, you’ll be shown your profile’s completeness and a plan for completing any outstanding information you still need to add, such as hours, phone number, etc.
5. Optimize for Featured Snippets
With each passing year, Google is trying to position itself as the one-stop-shop for quick and reliable information, and eating up more and more of your organic traffic by showing detailed answers to users’ questions in the SERPs itself.
That is, updates in the algorithm are leading towards more zero-click searches, wherein the user’s query is answered via the SERP itself. No need to waste time clicking through to a website and waiting for it to load.
As of 2019, zero-click searches accounted for over 50% of all Google searches. One reason for the rise in zero-click searches is the increase of featured snippets appearing in search results.
Also known as “position zero”, the featured snippet shows up as a little box that gives the exact answer to the search query, usually in a question format.
The featured snippet is located above the first organic search result, so it’s a great way to outrank even your highest authority rivals with simple tweaks in your content. Most search professionals are aware of the value of featured snippets, but few try to capitalize on them.
So, this is still a relatively untapped opportunity for you to leverage in 2021. Here’s how you can start doing that:
- Carry out thorough keyword research and try to answer all question-based search queries in your content with relevant keywords.
- Create comprehensive, long-form content and cover all long-tail keywords.
- Structure your answers as FAQs, add FAQSchema and aim for the optimal word count (featured snippets typically range from 40-50 words).
Not to mention optimizing your content for featured snippets also helps you rank for mobile voice searches — which 27% of the global online population is using — because voice searches are mostly done in a question-like format.
6. Nail Your E-A-T and Content Quality
By now, you’re aware that ranking high on Google is synonymous with providing an excellent user experience and the content you publish on your website is no exception.
After all, the quality of your content ties strongly to the user experience on your website. So whether it’s 2020, 2021, or beyond — “content is king” is an adage that won’t change.
But what does quality content mean, exactly? Remember the E-A-T principle: expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. These are the three factors that if a web page has quality content or not. This principle is particularly important if your website falls under the “Your Money or Your Life” (YMYL) category, such as financial or medical advice.
Let’s quickly take a look at the three factors of E-A-T:
- Expertise: Your content should ideally be created by subject matter experts, be it you or a hired professional. You don’t want to provide inaccurate or outdated information that may affect people’s well-being negatively.
- Authority: Prove your page’s authoritativeness with links and mentions from quality websites in your industry. The more citations you earn, the more authority you build.
- Trustworthiness: Google wants to rank websites and content that it can trust. Boost your trustworthiness by highlighting the credentials of your content creators and the people behind your website. Think reviews, awards, testimonials, endorsements, and other trust factors.
Now, there are a few things you can do to ensure you nail your content quality:
- Understand your buyer persona: Get to know your audience, their wants and needs, objections, and pain points. This is how you can create content that’s actually valuable.
- Conduct search intent research: We’ve already discussed how search intent is important, but it’s worth mentioning again. Analyze the search phrases that bring people to your website. Understand what your visitors are looking for to create content that aligns with their intent.
- Create content in the formats your audience prefers: Sure, publishing long-form blog posts and text-based content is still important to rank high on Google. But what if your target audience prefers more visual content, such as vlogs and tutorials? For optimal user experience, create the type of content that your audience prefers.
Moreover, back up your claims with recent statistics and facts from reliable sources. Ensure your content is thorough, well-researched, engaging, and original. Link to reputable sites, such as ones with “.edu” and “.gov” URLs. Finally, build links back to your content from authoritative publications.
7. Get Your Videos in SERPs
Search Google for almost anything these days and at the top of the SERPs, you’ll likely see a video carousel. Google rolled out video carousels to SERPs back in 2018 and since then, video as a content marketing format has skyrocketed in prominence.
And when you consider the fact that YouTube (a Google entity) is the world’s second-largest search engine and second most visited site after Google, it makes total sense.
YouTube has more than 2 billion monthly active users, equating to almost one-third of the internet, and it processes more than 3 billion searches a month making it bigger than Bing, Yahoo!, Ask, and AOL combined.
Here are a few video marketing statistics that prove the power of video:
- 70% of businesses say that videos boost brand awareness.
- 51% of businesses agree that videos increase traffic.
- Videos help businesses get 66% more qualified leads.
- 85% of people say that videos help them connect with brands more effectively.
- 88% of businesses that use video report a positive ROI.
What’s more, video traffic will make up 82% of all consumer traffic by the year 2022. The growing emphasis on video again ties to user experience.
Like it or not, most people today (with their dwindling attention spans) would prefer to watch a quick video than read an article. And the Google algorithm is evolving in response to this shift.
So if you aren’t creating video content, it’s about time you get started because, in 2021, it’s safe to say you can’t compete without a video marketing strategy in place. Also, you can’t blame things like affordability or lack of time anymore.
Here are a few cost-effective ways to help you get started with what you already have:
- Create screencast tutorials and presentations
- Share video testimonials from happy customers
- Show behind the scenes of your business
- Try DIY animated videos
- Interview experts and thought leaders
- Repurpose top-performing blog posts into videos
For every video you publish on YouTube and embed on your website, make sure to:
- Optimize your title and meta description for the right keywords.
- Create a high-quality thumbnail image.
- Have closed captions and a keyword-rich transcript.
This way your videos stand a much better chance of ranking in the SERPs.
SEO is no longer a mere game of backlinks, keywords, and text-based content anymore, as this list proves it. With each algorithm update, Google is rewarding websites that provide delightful user experience and penalizing ones that treat UX as an afterthought.
Your best bet in 2021 is to acknowledge this fact and optimize your pages and content for more compelling and engaging experiences. So, understand the search intent of your audience, prove your E-A-T, prioritize mobile, and create genuinely useful content in formats your audience wants.
In a nutshell, shift from a rankings-first mindset to a user-first mindset if you wish to get to the top of the SERPs (and stay there) in 2021 and beyond.